If Youth But Knew/The Burgrave's Farewell
III.—THE BURGRAVE'S FAREWELL.
IT was a great folded sheet and bore, on a huge seal, a spreading coat-of-arms. It was addressed as follows: "To the High-born Steven Lee, Graf Waldorf zu Kilmansegg, at the Silver Stork Inn, Wellenshausen," and contained a brief but courteous message—
- "Honoured Sir,
- "I have just returned to my house and hear, with desolation, that I have missed the amiable visit which you have vouchsafed to it. Hoping that you may not yet have left the neighbourhood, I send this in haste. Will you not retrace yours steps—if you think our poor hospitality still worth acceptance—and give me the exceeding gratification of calling myself your host?
"Burgrave of Wellenshausen."
The young traveller, who had been looking back on his stolen visit to the castle on the peak, and on his evening with the ladies sheltered behind in forbidding walls, as an adventure of some spice (though, in its integrity, harmless enough), was seized with disappointment. So much for all latter-day romance; so much for the reputed Bluebeard of Wellenshausen; for the husband so ferociously jealous, report said, that he must shut up his Fatima in a tower as tight as St. Barbara's. Why, so far from striking off Fatima's head, he sends in haste to recall the audacious visitor and craves to be allowed to expend upon him the treasures of an amiable disposition.
"Ah, fiddler, my friend," thought Count Steven sagely, "you and your music have discoursed wild nonsense anent the surprises of life, anent the golden rose of youth … but the world is a workaday place, drab and dull of hue; and the dreams with which your words have tilled my thoughts are hot the children of my own fantasy and your own fiddle-bow."
He looked across the inn-yard, through a screen of vine-leaves, to where the fiddler was seated on a bench, playing away with a will, eyes beaming upon a ring of dancing children. The heaviness of the morning was clearing; yellow shafts of sunlight pierced the mists. Steven hesitated. The messenger from the Castle, a smart Jäger in a green-and-mulberry uniform, stood on one side with the decorous indifference of his condition, his lips pursed for a voiceless whistle to the tune that made gay the poor inn-yard. A little farther away, the young nobleman's travelling-chaise was even now being packed under the supervision of his Lordship's body-servant … The Burgrave's invitation was banality itself, almost trivial; yet the programme for the day's journey was more everyday still.
The fiddler drew a long last note, and the children raised a shout of protest. A bell began to jangle, ugly and persistent.
"School-time!" cried the musician. He got up and nodded across to Steven. "Has my Lord Bluebeard invited you back upon his height?—Don't go."
"You, advise me not to go!" cried the other in amazement. He had had but two days' acquaintance with this crazy fellow, who, partly by the witchery of his music and partly by the air of mystery which surrounded him, partly again by some odd personal power, had fascinated him as no other human being had ever done before. This sober counsel, certes, was quite the last thing the young man had expected from lips that hitherto, upon every occasion, had suggested the out-of-the-way step, the fantastic resolve; urged them passionately, in the name of Youth and Opportunity.
Of course that decided it. "Don't go," said the fiddler. Steven Lee, Count Kilmansegg, if Austrian by name, was half English by blood and more than half by education. And he was twenty-two; combativeness and obstinacy rose in arms. He had not been long his own master.
Inevitably he went.
He drove in state to the foot of the crag and, while his box and valise were loaded upon the mule that was to climb the rocky path to the feudal nest of granite, he paused to look down at the brown waters that rushed, so swift and dark, so cruelly cold, from unexplored caverns on the flanks of the mount. As he paused, he found that the travelling fiddler had overtaken him and was about to pass onwards along the high-road.
"We shall meet soon again, I trust, friend," he cried affably, and himself turned to ascend the path.
"Who can tell?" said the fiddler in a grave voice.
The young man glanced up at his destination, black and grim against a pale sky, and a chill came upon him like a sudden shadow.
The Burgrave was elderly, to have so young a wife; but he was a handsome man, square-built and portly. His manners were very fine—so fine, indeed, as to be confusing to his guest, straight from England and English reticence. The Burgrave smiled frequently, and joked, too, to a vast extent, with his wife and niece; but it was noticeable to Steven that the former seemed ill at ease, and that the latter now and again regarded her relation with an eye in which surprise and contempt were mingled.
Indeed, to the Count himself, his host's most boisterous laugh not unfrequently rang hollow; and, when they were alone together, it was not without some vague discomfort that he would find the Burgrave's gaze fixed upon him with a stoniness totally at variance with the bland expansion, the flattering expression which hovered upon his lips.
On the morning of the third day, Steven, invited to inspect the view from the battlements in an exceptionally clear light, found himself alone with Burgravine Betty on the topmost turret of the Burg. The Burgrave's great laugh was echoing up to them from the inner recesses of the winding stairs.
"O Heavens!" said the lady suddenly.
Steven turned. The cry was so tragic, apparently so unwarranted. The Burgravine's eyes were dry, but there was real terror on her pretty face.
"Why did you come?" she whispered. "In the name of mercy! was it not evident that it was a trap?"
"A trap!" he stammered.
"Yes, yes! O, do you not feel it? He is watching us like a cat—a cat going to spring; and I am the wretched mouse waiting—waiting. O, I can stand it no longer! I shall go mad. If only you had not come! How did he know? What did I tell him? There was nothing to tell, say you; we had done no harm. That is just it! I told him a lie, of course, and he found out it was a lie—that is of course, too. A man who has spies all about his place! And now he believes I am hiding something, and he is waiting only to be quite sure. O, sir, you might have known! A man who shuts up his wife for jealousy is not seized with such effusive hospitality towards handsome strangers without a reason of his own."
The warm olive had crept back to her face with the comfort of being able to speak at last. And for the life of her she could not have helped a flash of her blue eyes upon the final sentence.
"Then, madam," he cried—he was still bewildered, but there was a brooding something in the air that gave a truth to her words—"I will go now—to-day."
"Go?" she echoed in scorn. "Aye, go, if you can," she went on with a change of tone. "He has got you well in his meshes; you are clogged, sir, and bound by his politeness and his hospitality. And if you think he will let you go before he has carried out his purpose with us, you little know the Burgrave."
"Carried out his purpose with us!" The very vagueness of the suggestion added to its unpleasantness. Steven lifted his head indignantly. "And what may that be, pray?"
She glanced at him a second with a slight uplifting of lip and eyebrow. To a lady who had graduated in the Court of King Jerome, this big young man, with his English simplicity, was a trifle irritating.
"Mon Dieu!" she said then, turning aside with a shrug of her shoulder, "how embarrassing you are! Do you know your poets? Well, then: he would like to find us playing at Paolo and Francesca, if you please, that he might play the Malatesta!"
"Great Jupiter!" cried the ingenuous youth. Then he saw the lady hang her head and droop a modest eyelid—it was Scylla and Charybdis! Beyond any doubt, he must walk out of these insecure precincts at the very earliest opportunity.
"Steve was quite pale as he caught her back against his breast."
They were perched high up in the blue, and down below the country lay spread like green cloth on which a child has set its toys. Yonder white ribbon wandering so far below—there ran his road. Would he were on it! He turned to her, took her soft hand, bent and kissed it.
"Madam," said he, "it is best it should be 'Good-bye'—for both of us; it is best."
He spoke very truly, poor young man, but into the touch of his lips and the pathos of his speech her vanity read another meaning.
"Cousin!" she cried suddenly, and clutched at his hands with both of hem. "O, take me with you! Take me back to my own people! If I stay here, he will kill me, or I shall kill myself!"
And as his troubled face and involuntarily repelling fingers were far from giving her the response she craved, she rushed across and bent over the crumbling parapet.
"Refuse your help," she cried desperately, "and I will throw myself down!"
(Had little Sidonia but been at hand, to tell him how well accustomed she was to such threats!)
Steven was quite pale as he caught her hack against his breast.
"Mercy!" He shivered, thinking of those giddy deeps. She clung to him, her scented head against his shoulders.
"Surely, surely it is not much I ask," she murmured faintly. "See how I trust you, kinsman! Only your protection, your escort back to our own people. It is not much to ask!"
It meant his whole life, and he knew it. But what can a young man do with a woman's arms about him and a woman's whisper pleading in his ears?
"Ha-ha-ha!" came the Burgrave's laugh from below. Countess Betty slid out of "Beau Cousin's" arms. She lifted a warning finger: "I will arrange," she whispered, nodding. "Now must we be seen no more alone together."
Sidonia's voice rang up towards them. "I will write," whispered Betty again, finger on lip. O Heavens! how could she look arch and smile at such a moment?
"My friend, I have been showing our cousin how far your estate extends," said the lady gaily, tripping across to take the Burgrave's arm with more ease than she had as yet displayed since his return.
"I trust our cousin has profited by your instruction, and that he realises the boundaries of my property," said the Burgrave of Wellenshausen, with his genial smile and his icy eye.
Steven's heavy conscience read a hateful significance in the remark; a sweat broke on his forehead.
As he turned, his glance fell upon the little Baroness Sidonia's pure child-face, and he felt miserable and ashamed to the core.
The Burgrave's jaunty Jäger stood and saluted in military fashion. The Burgrave wheeled round in his chair and bent his brows. It was dark in the great stone room but for the single shaded lamp on the writing-table which flung a pallid circle of light upon his intent countenance. So might some ancestor of his have looked, four hundred years before, as he planned with his henchman the trick that should rid him of an enemy.
"I have to report, my lord," said the fellow, " that the Count Kilmansegg's travelling-carriage is ordered to be in readiness at the foot of the hill to-night."
"So!" The exclamation was almost triumph.
The man pulled a slip of paper from the breast of his tunic and held it out. "Will your Lordship open it carefully?" he remarked imperturbably, as the Burgrave's eye shot flames and he stretched out an eager hand. "The gracious lady has not yet seen it. And I have promised Elisa that it should not be crushed."
The Burgrave held the note to the light. It was in French and very terse:
"All is ready. I will wait for you at the entrance of the east tower at nine o'clock."
The Burgrave stared at the words for an appreciable time. An apoplectic wave of blood rushed to his bald head, and the veins thereon swelled like cords. Then he folded the paper again with minute precaution and handed it back to the man.
"Return it to the wench and bid her deliver it," he said briefly. "Well, what now?"
"I beg pardon, my lord, but this has cost me my watch-chain to-day. And I took upon myself to promise her further two gold pieces."
"Fool!" said the Burgrave harshly. "Could you not have done as much by love-making? Men are scarce in these parts."
The Jäger shrugged his shoulders. "She took the kisses as well," he said cynically. "What will his Lordship have? Women are like that!"
The other flung the coins across the table with an oath. Those were better days, of old, when a man could have his bidding done in his own castle without any such bargainings. But as the servant wheeled and left, the fierce smile of triumph came again to the master's lips: "The entrance of the east tower! You have chosen well, my turtle-doves!"
The Burgrave gradually lost himself in reflection.
Countess Betty had the megrims and declined to appear at supper. For a sufferer, however, she had a bright eye; and she moved about her room with the alacrity of a busy bird. She was alone, some belated notion of prudence having bade her dismiss her handmaiden during the final preparation. She was gazing wistfully at the dimensions of the small travelling-bag (which was all that, in conscience, she could allow herself, since Cousin Kilmansegg would have to carry it himself down the precipitous roads) and the numberless objects which, at the last moment, seemed to her indispensable, when there came a tap at her window. She started—and only the sense of unacknowledged guilt weighing on her soul kept her from screaming aloud for help—when she perceived, pressed against the uncurtained pane, a man's face.
The next instant, however, she had recognised the wandering fiddler; she hurried to meet him. This singular being, familiar and welcome in nearly every house of the countryside, was known to her chiefly as the friendly guide of her high-born visitor and "kinsman," the young Count.
"A message?" she cried eagerly.
The man swung himself in and sat on the deep window-seat. His face was wet with rain. He gazed upon her for a second quizzically; and when he spoke, it was not in reply.
"Here I come," said he, "up the ivy, at the risk of my neck, I, upon whom your worthy lord and master would set his dogs without a moment's compunction if he caught me. What a plight should I be in had I counted upon your tender heart sparing a tremor for my perils! 'Tis enough to make a man desire to walk in by the door for the rest of his life!"
"But in Heaven's name," she exclaimed, having but a matter-of-fact spirit, in spite of its dainty envelope, "you did climb up all the way to tell me something. Was it not a message?"
He laid his hand on his heart: "From myself," he answered.
She glanced at him and then at her bolted door with some alarm. He read her thought.
"God forbid!" quoth he, smiling with an air that put him, in his poor raiment, at an extraordinary distance above her. "I should not so presume, madam. Are you aware," he pursued, "that your husband's confidential Jäger was in intimate conversation with Count Kilmansegg's postilion in the village to-day?"
"Mercy!" she cried, reading the portent.
"After which, my dear madam, he clomb the hill in a company that lightened the way for him: having, in fact, his arm round the trim waist of your own handmaiden."
Countess Betty sank on a couch, white to her lips.
"Your trusted handmaiden," repeated the fiddler emphatically.
"Alas! if I had hesitated," said the lady, piously turning up her eyes to the vaulted ceiling, "this would decide it; I dare not risk another night in this castle."
"Taking risk for risk," said the musician carelessly, "if I were timid, I should prefer the waiting hazard."
"You mean?" she panted, round-eyed in alarm.
"I mean," said he, "that it is raining exceedingly hard, and that between this and the foot of the crag you will get wet, madam; so wet as to damp for ever the most ardent flame."
The Burgravine rose with dignity. "I will have you know, sir, that I am merely accepting Count Kilmansegg's protection back to my own family, because I know I can trust to his honour."
"Quite so," said Fiddle-Hans soothingly. "And it is, of course, infinitely preferable to set forth by night in secret, with a handsome young man, than to summon any more aged or nearer relative to your help! A father, maybe—or a brother? But it is raining, as I say, madam, very hard. And I am afraid when you arrive in Austria, your noble family may consider your journey ill-managed."
Her bosom heaved.
"It is very unjust," she moaned, "that you men can do everything, whereas we poor women——" she paused on the brink of tears.
"Ah!" he retorted, "you women are the crystal cups that hold the honour of the House! That is why we must set you in a shrine, madam. To-night it is still sanctuary in your presence, and I can still kneel before you. To-morrow——?"
The colour rushed into her face. She tried to speak with haughtiness, but her voice faltered.
"It is inconceivable how much wiser it is to remain under a husband's roof on such a night!"
There came a knock at the door. With squirrel nimbleness the fiddler twisted round and vanished.
The Burgravine took a rapid survey of the room, whisked the bag into a cupboard, the jewel-cases on the top of it, and went to the window to close it.
"One moment, one moment!" she called, as the knocking was discreetly repeated, and paused with her hand on the casement. Certainly it was most uncomfortable weather! Then she opened the door. Sidonia entered.
"Little aunt, is your head better?"
"Yes, child, yes. You have supped? Is it so late?"
Before the girl could answer, the bell of the castle clock began to boom nine strokes.
"Nine o'clock!" shrieked the Burgravine. "What's to be done?"
"He laid his hand on his heart: 'For myself,' he answered"
She struck her forehead with a distraught air. "I dare not trust that false Elisa," she murmured in her mind. Then her eye met Sidonia's candid gaze and she caught her hand.
"Listen, child; you shall do something for me. M. de Kilmansegg is going away to-night."
The girl's pupils widened, her face grew paler, but she did not speak.
"'Twas I bade him leave. your uncle's causeless jealousy——"
The girl nodded. The Burgrave, in truth, had been no pleasant companion that night, but had drunk heavily, and alternated between glowering spells of silence and loud and almost offensive pleasantries aimed at his guest, both of which had, not unnaturally, considerably embarrassed Count Kilmansegg.
"'Twas my duty!" (O, how virtuous felt the Burgravine of Wellenshausen!) "I had promised him (poor youth, he is my cousin!) that I would bid him 'Good-bye.' But now"—(positively Countess Betty thought her niece must see the halo growing round her head)—"now it has struck me that if your uncle heard of it, he might misconstrue—— My dear, you must go and tell Count Steven from me——"
"I?" cried Sidonia, and started.
"You must," insisted the lady harshly. "He is waiting in the east tower. Tell him this: My aunt has sent me to say 'Good-bye' for her; it is better so. It is better so. Do not forget to say that. What are you waiting for, girl? Go! Perhaps you are afraid of the rain!" cried the Burgravine scornfully, and seized the travelling-cloak that was lying ready on the bed. "Here, put this on; wrap the hood over your head. Now run, there is not a moment to be lost."
There was perhaps more urgency, more fear, in her voice and manner than she had been aware of; for Sidonia, after a quick look at her, gathered the folds of the cloak about her and fled upon her errand. The Burgravine drew a long sigh of relief, then rang her hand-bell sharply.
"Elisa," said she to the alertly responsive damsel, and, on the spot, froze her with a glance for the impertinent air of confederacy with which she had entered, "light up a fire and serve supper to me. My head is better. Trim the candles and give me 'La Nouvelle Héloise.' How you stare, wench! Have you fallen in love, perhaps, that you do your work so ill to-day?"
Steven's reflections, as he waited in the best sheltered corner of the deserted tower, listening to the beat and gurgle of the rain, were of an unsatisfactory description. The folly of weakness is the worst of follies; the realisation of it the most galling. He was about—no use in trying to blink the fact—he was about to ruin his own life; to take upon himself an intolerable burden; to commit, technically at least, a crime against hospitality; to put a stain upon his ancient name; and all without receiving in return the slightest gratification or being able to proffer, even to himself, the exoneration of any approach to passion. The mere thought of the long, intimate drive was a bore. The prospect of a possible life-long companionship with the Burgravine was intolerable.
Fiddle-Hans, mysterious wretch that he was, had much to answer for. And yet, had Steven followed his advice, things would not be at this pass.
She came in upon him with a rapid step and a rustle of wet garments. She stopped at the mouth of the passage and said in a loud whisper—
"Are you there, M. de Kilmansegg?"
As he came forward, she clutched him with her little cold hand. "Hush," she went on, "I think I heard steps behind me!"
Both listened, not daring to breathe. O, what a situation for a youth whose pride it had been to hold his head high in the world!
Nothing was heard, however, save the wide, dismal murmur of the rain over the land and the nearer drip and patter.
"Sidonia gathered the folds of her cloak about her and fled upon the errand." "No, there is nothing," he said, and reluctantly passed a limp arm round her shoulders. To his surprise, they were jerked from his touch with resentment. The next moment, however, by a mutual movement, they caught at each other; for there came a mysterious grinding about their ears, and almost immediately the solid ground seemed to give way under their feet.
"Gracious Powers! is the tower falling?" cried he. Even as he clasped the figure beside him, with the instinctive, protecting action of the man for the woman, he was aware that the slender thing in his arms could not be the Burgravine. But, at the same instant, he felt that they were sliding; and before he could do aught but throw himself backwards to avoid crushing her, they were shot with celerity down a steep incline. After a few seconds, with a shock, his feet reached level ground; and for a space he lay dazed and breathless, with her weight across his breast. Stars danced before his eyes. Vaguely, aa from a great distance, he heard overhead the echo of a laugh, a thud, and once more the grinding sound, as of heavy, rusty bars. It was the laugh that brought him to his senses; too often, lately, had it rung unpleasantly in his ears.
She raised herself in his arms.
"Are you hurt?" he cried as he lay.
"No," she answered quickly; "don't get up!" He heard, by the sudden change in her voice, how she flung the muffling hood from her head. "Don't get up! don't stir! I must find out where we are."
He recognised the young, clear tones. It was Sidonia. But he was past surprise. One thing flashed clear out of his confusion: whatever it might be that had brought this about, he was glad. To the heart of him, he was glad it was not Countess Betty!
He felt the girl struggle to her feet, heard her grope with her hands above his head. There came a moment of great stillness; he knew she was listening. Unconsciously he hearkened too, and then there grew upon them, out of the roaring darkness, the cry of waters, rising up with a sort of cavernous echo as from a great depth. And, with a flash, his mind leaped back to that fearsome race of brown river that swirled so strangely from the foot of the Burg-crag, just above the village bridge.
He felt his hair bristle. But when she spoke again, the sound of her voice, with its extraordinary accent of decision, roused him like a stimulant.
"We are safe if we but keep where we are," she said. "You may sit up if you like, but do not attempt to stand." And then she added: "You do not know the place—I do."
She sat down beside him; and in the dark he felt her close presence once more with gladness.
"What is this place, then?" he asked, unconsciously whispering.
"It is the old oubliette," she answered with a simplicity which almost made him laugh.
Vague memories of cruel mediæval romance awoke in his brain. Oubliette! The word itself was suggestive, and not agreeably so. "An oubliette is——?"
"The secret trap by which the castellan of old quietly got rid of enemies or of inconvenient prisoners. You see," she proceeded, with her astounding composure, "through this tower, in former days, was the sallyport—there used to be no other way; and were any one, whose existence interfered with the views of the Lord of Wellenshausen, passing out or in, it was easy to set the machinery in motion, with the result——" she broke off.
"Of landing him in our enviable situation," he finished pettishly.
"Not at all," retorted she. "It is the mercy of Heaven for us that time and storm have been at work in these forgotten regions and provided us with so opportune a ledge——"
"What would have happened else?" he asked in a tone that strove to emulate her coolness.
"Sit quietly and listen."
He felt her reach for a stone, felt the tension of her vigorous young body as she flung it. He heard the missile strike the rock sharply, rebound and then rebound again. Then, after a silence, rose a faint sound, the ghost of a splash, the gulp of greedy, still, far-off waters, infinitely sinister.
"No one knows how deep it is," said she, "nor what lies hidden there. I can tell you, when I first discovered this pit, it terrified me. Old Martin had told me its legends, but I had laughed at him. One day, some months ago, I scrambled in from the outside and explored the place. But I had no notion the old trap-stone in the sallyport still worked. Now I remember," she cried with sudden sharpness, "seeing Uncle Ludo wandering about the place to-day——" She stopped suddenly, struck by a new thought.
"But, in Heaven's name, what have I done to him?" exclaimed the young man. And then his uneasy conscience whipped him silent.
"It is a horrible trick," resumed the girl passionately—"you, his guest——" An indignant sob caught her in the throat. "You his guest!" she repeated. "O, whatever he thought of you, he should have remembered that! I can never forgive him."
And the guest who had meditated, however unwillingly, betrayal of his host, blushed painfully under the cloak of blackness. He heard her swallow her tears and knew that she clenched her hands. After a while she went on more quietly—
"How wise it was of Aunt Betty to tell you to go away! And, O, how glad I am that she sent me instead of coming herself to bid you 'Good-bye.'" Steven opened his mouth and then closed it again dumbly.
"You would both have been killed," she went on, sinking her voice. "Uncle Ludovic must be mad—mad with his foolish jealousy. Ah, dear Lord! if I had not been with you——"
She gave a shudder. He, on his side, had no words—silent in shame before the exquisite innocence; silent in admiration before the self-forgetting courage of this slip of a creature, who thought nothing of her own danger. "Here indeed is good blood—here is the spirit of race!" he thought, touched in his most sensitive chord.
Presently, however, the humour of the situation struck him, and he laughed. There was Thistledown Betty, incapable even of acting up to her own unfaithfulness, snug in her bower doubtless; and there was the outraged husband, gloating over his mediæval vengeance. Steven wished he could be present at their next conjugal meeting. Sidonia, childlike, echoed his laugh softly beside him in the dark. It struck him serious on the instant. The morrow seemed a long way off!
"And now," said he, "what are we to do?"
"Hey, good sir!" said she, "nothing but wait. We shall not die this time, M. de Kilmansegg, for my poor uncle"—she laughed in scorn and triumph—"he did not discover, I warrant, that there is a way out of this old death-trap as well as a way in—a way other than by the hidden lake and the barque of Monsieur Charon. But, till the daylight comes, sir——"
"Daylight?" he said, and knew not whether he were glad or sorry at the whole night's prospect.
"Till daylight comes we must take patience here. For one false step would send our bodies to join the bones of the forgotten enemies of Wellenshausen."
"Then, I should say, the best thing we can do is to go to sleep."
Again he was mute, pierced to the innermost fibre of his manliness. It was as if her child-heart had been suddenly revealed to him—its trustfulness, its simplicity, its courage.
"If you move a little to the right, carefully," she said after a pause, "you will find it softer, I think. The earth has grown up there, and there are, I remember, ferns. You will really not be too uncomfortable."
She was positively doing the honours of the family oubliette! There came a tender smile to his lips and almost a mist of tenderness to his eyes.
"But you," said he, "good fairy, guardian angel, do you never think of yourself? Will you lean against me?" he went on almost timidly.
He gathered her to him. What a slight, warm thing she was! She trembled as he passed his arms round her, and he instantly desisted. "Would you rather not?"
"I don't know," she whispered. He thought there was a quaver as of tears catching her breath.
All the chivalry in him leaped to her service. He drew back. With some difficulty he unwound his heavy cloak from about himself. He was stiff and bruised, and the uncertainty of his balance in the blackness gave him an eerie sensation of precipices yawning for him on all sides.
"What are you doing?" she cried severely.
"Let me put this over you," he pleaded. "And then you can roll up your own mantle and make a pillow of it—against me, thus."
"But you—but you——" She struggled against his covering hands so impetuously that he caught her with a grip of alarm. And then the sound of the rock crumbling away and leaping into the gulf gave its significant warning.
"You must keep quiet," said he, for the first time asserting the leadership. "And you must let me hold you and cover you. It is my duty to serve you, Mademoiselle Sidonia, my right to protect you. Sleep if you can. You will be safe, for I shall watch."
She remained motionless a moment and then submitted without a word. He placed his arm about her; her head drooped to his shoulder. There fell silence. In time he felt her rigidity relax, heard her quick breath grow calm and regular.
"You are afraid no more," he said gently.
"I don't think I was afraid," she answered him. Her voice had grown lazy; and, subtly, by the tone of it, he knew that she smiled. He felt ineffably proud of her confidence, ineffably protective towards her.
The minutes went by, passing into hours.
Something raised a blood-curdling lament that went sobbing and echoing through the cavern. If he had not held her, he would have started in frank alarm. She only gave a drowsy laugh.
"'Tis Barbarossa, the old owl," said she.
And again fell the silence, filled for him with whirling thoughts.
How right had this Fiddle-Hans been in his warning! How merciful had Fate been to save him from his own folly!
Were he now rolling along the wet Imperial road with the Burgrave's wife, he would have had, doubtless, to clasp her much as he clasped Sidonia. Precarious as it was, his present situation was infinitely preferable. He felt like a father, holding his pretty child, all warm with tenderness; not a dishonest, cold lover with the woman he cannot love.
Sidonia's light breathing grew fainter and more rhythmic. She was asleep. He had longed, but hardly dared to hope, that she could sleep. In his heart he went down on his knees to her and thanked her, stirred by the eternal parent instinct, perhaps, but also by another emotion, tenderer still and more vital—a reverent bending of his whole manhood before the purity and trustfulness that lay in his embrace.
The night progressed with lengthening hours.
He had begun to make out some kind of bearings for himself in the dark; to find, by the cold airs that occasionally blew in upon him from one direction, by the guidance of the sounds that grew in the night's stillness,—the gusty increases, the placid subsidence of the rain, the rustle of leaves and twigs—in which quarter of their prison lay that opening to the outer world by which they should escape.
Sometimes his mind wandered far away. Now and again he almost lost himself in a vague dream; but ever he came back with a shock to the present peril and his responsibility.
And the child still slept!
He began to grow weary and cold. His arm became stiff, then numb. The burden that had seemed so light upon it grew almost intolerable. Sometimes as drowsiness pressed upon him, he thought himself in a nightmare, from which he must wake to find himself huddled in a corner of his travelling-chaise. But he would have died sooner than disturb the placid being in his embrace.
Then, at the moment when the tension of enforced immobility brought such a feeling of exasperation and oppression upon him that he almost felt as if his wits were leaving him, he turned his head instinctively in the direction of the air current, and relief came. The rain was over. The clouds had cleared away, and a patch of sky looked in upon him, framed by jagged rocks; it held two or three faint stars; he could see a branch outlined dimly against the translucence, and leaves trembling in outer freedom.
Nothing more than this, and yet it was balm. The torture that gripped him subsided. He gazed and forgot the cramping of his limbs. The first stare passed slowly and vanished; others swam into his vision and formed new shapes in the peep of sky. Some were brighter, some more dim, some twinkled; one burned with a steady glow. They varied in colour, too. He had had no idea that, even through such a miserable hole, the heavens had a pageant to offer of such absorbing interest. And the passing of this pageant gave him a comforting sense of the flow of night towards morn.
Once Sidonia woke with a start and a cry.
"I am here," he quickly said soothingly.
She reared herself from his arm. It was numbed to uselessness; he caught her with the other fiercely. That pit, gaping so close by in the night, had come, during the long hours, to seem to him an unknown monster watching, waiting for its prey.
She, but half awake, gropingly passed her little hands over his face and breast. "I dreamed you had fallen," she murmured. And then, so secure in his hold, stretched herself like a weary child and slid a little further from him so that her head rested on his knee.
"Slid a little further from him so that her head rested on his knee."
His eyes had grown more accustomed to the darkness; or perhaps there was already a raising of the deepest veils of night, for he could almost distinguish her form as she lay. He bent over her; she was speaking dreamily: "When you were hurt, in the forest, this was how your head rested on my lap——" In another moment she was asleep again.
His arms were free—the sense of constraint was gone. And now the time went by almost as quickly as before it had lagged. He saw with surprise that the stars were extinguished; that his patch of sky had grown pearl grey. Sundry stirrings in the leafage without spoke of an awakening world. A bird piped. The walls of their prison began to take shape … He saw the white glimmer of her hand in the folds of the cloak … And then he knew he must, after all, have slept at his post, for the next thing he knew was coming to himself, with a great spasm, and seeing in a shaft of yellow sunlight, grey rock, brown earth, and Sidonia's golden head upon his knee. And, but a yard from her little, sandalled foot, the horrible black chasm!—O, shame! he had slept, and Death lurking for her! The sweat started on his forehead.
A sigh of music was blown into the cavern. She turned her head and gazed up in his face with wide, bewildered eyes.
"It is Fiddle-Hans," she murmured, and rubbed her eyes, as though she thought she were still dreaming. Then she sat up, looked round—and memory leaped back.
She smiled, yawned, and drew herself together. "Well," she said, with a sidelong glance at the pit-mouth, "we have had luck, you and I! … Don't you want to get out of this, M. de Kilmansegg?" she asked briskly, as he sat, wondering at her. "Or do you think it would be a nice place to turn hermit in? See, this is the way," said she, and pointed to the narrow ledge skirting the deep, "we shall have to crawl on hands and knees. And, sir, I think our cloaks must be sacrificed."
As she spoke, she gathered them together and pushed them from her; they rolled down, and Steven almost called aloud as he heard their heavy plunge into the ambushed waters. It sounded as if some living thing had gone to its death.
"I will lead," said she.
Sunshine, sky, grass, wide airs! Steven had never known what these things could mean to man till that moment. He sat on a sun-warmed rock by the side of the precipitous, all but obliterated, pathway that led zigzag upwards to the broken rampart. Sidonia stood shaking and pruning herself like a bird, her hair glinting in the light. By tacit consent both paused upon this moment of physical relief before considering their next course. From above, the plaintive strain they had heard within their prison was again borne down towards them on the breeze. Sidonia's fingers, busy in her tresses, stopped—she bent her ear. "'Tis Fiddle-Hans, and that is my tune. He is seeking me."
She curved her hands round her mouth and gave a long mountain cry. It rang clear and sweet, cleaving the pure morning air like the call of a bird.
Instantly the restless melody stopped; and, as they stood looking up in expectation, they saw the figure of Fiddle-Hans emerge on the rocks over their heads. Holding his fiddle high in the air, he came clambering down to them with the agility of a goat.
"Thank God!" he exclaimed, as, breathless, he drew near. "Cruel children, what a fright you have given me!"
His cheek was grey under its bronze. Yet, in spite of its severity, his haggard eye was quick to note that these two were torn and dishevelled—that their smiles had the pallor which has smiled on death.
"What has happened?" cried the vagrant again in changed accents. And Sidonia broke into passionate complaint. A great lassitude was upon Steven; he did not wish to stir or speak.
"And it was Uncle Ludo did it!" she ended, with a fresh gust of anger. "We heard him laugh, as we fell—and Count Kilmansegg his guest!" Her pride could not stomach the thought; it was less to her, evidently, that her relative should have endeavoured to compass the death of wife as well as guest, for her anger dropped into mere shuddering pity as she added: "Poor Aunt Betty! Just think, if she had not sent me!"
Diverse expressions passed over Fiddle-Hans' countenance as the story unrolled itself before his quick mental vision. Thunder of anger, clouds of fear and doubt. He shot one searching inquiry at Steven; his brow cleared before the frank answering look.
As the girl finished, the two men once more exchanged glances; the eyes of both had grown soft. For herself the little fearless creature still had no thought, far less words.
"Well, friends," said the fiddler at last, sitting down on the slope and wiping his forehead with his sleeve, "you may flatter yourselves that you've given me no better night than your own. First, Sir Count, having a word to say to you, I made so bold as to take a seat in your carriage, as it waited down yonder—and a moist time I had of it, in company with your Lordship's horses and postilion. By the way, this same postilion hath a varied choice of oaths. Towards the small hours, our relations became strained, and we parted—he back to the 'Silver Stork,' and I—I will not conceal it—to wandering once more in the purlieus of this hospitable strong-house. For although nothing was more natural than that the guest should have altered his intention of departure at the last moment, my mind misgave me."
"Poor Fiddle-Hans!" said Sidonia. "How wet you must have been!"
"Nay, the night had turned fine then—it was the least of my hardships. But at dawn this restless spirit of mine set me to rousing the Castle—and a fine time of it I have given them! The Burgrave, however, was found dead drunk in his hall, so that I could get little out of him. The lady is convinced that you, comrade, have eloped with her niece by some devious road——"
"Devious enough," said Steven, with a short laugh. But Sidonia had become grave.
"I am glad he was drunk," she said with judicial air.
"I left the Burgravine planning hysterics. But I have given orders, in the household, as if I were lord of it all—there are some half-dozen fellows searching the rocks already. And here, by the way, comes one bright youth. Observe how he looks under the whins and the bushes. He will not leave a mouse-hole unprodded for your corpses."
"Shall we not bid him get breakfast for us all?" cried Sidonia gaily. "'Tis the least Wellenshausen can do for you this morning, Count Steven."
She sprang upwards lightly, her small, tired face laughing back at them over her shoulder.
The fiddler and Steven stood side by side watching her.
"Well," said the former, after a pause, "are you inclined to go and break bread again in the house whose stones plotted your blood? Or will you take the safe way down the mountain to the cushions of your berlin and cry: 'Drive on, postilion'?"
Steven regarded the speaker a moment or two before replying. It seemed to the young man as if that long, black night had cut him off from his own purblind youth. He felt himself years older, weighted with life.
"I am going back to the castle," he said, and set off climbing.
"Hey, comrade, hey, what haste?" panted the other at his ear. "What is your purpose up there? You've been there once too often." There was a certain anxiety under the speaker's mocking air.
"My purpose," began Steven coldly—he was about to add, "concerns you not." But on second thought he wheeled round, and all that had been gathering in his heart this night escaped in words of fire. "Why do you ask?" he cried. "You know! What! are you the man to whom the souls of others lie bare? Are you a man like myself, and do you think I can leave that child now? With her little hand she held me from death; she lay in my arms and slept and trusted me. Do you think I could endure myself if I thought I had left her unprotected here? If I give my whole life to the mere guardianship of her, shall I do more than my duty? Man!" cried Steven, catching the fiddler's sunburnt wrist and shaking him, "I tell you, the child lay in my arms all night."
"She is indeed a child," said the musician quietly.
"And it is even for that!" exclaimed Steven. "O, I thought you would have understood."
"Let us go up to the heights, then," said the fiddler.
"No music?" cried Sidonia gaily, as she watched them coming, from the doorstep. "I expected to hear your fiddle chanting the song of delivery!"
"I have enough music in my soul this morning," replied the wanderer.
The Burgrave was a sorry spectacle. A man may play the mediæval avenger overnight, but in the morning he belongs to his own age, and the sense of proportion reaaserts itself. The Burgrave's awakening to sobriety, his realisation of his own deed, were depressing to the direst degree. Paradoxically, no less terrible was the discovery that his suspicions had been unfounded; that his wife was both virtuous and still of the living; that it was an innocent niece and an innocent guest whom he had precipitated to an awful doom. He had almost betrayed himself in his first anguished cry on meeting the Burgravine.
"It was Sidonia, then—it was not you, the youth came for?"
"For me?" cried the lady in furious repudiation. "How dared you think so? Why—that minx and he have understood each other from the first, as any but an owl could see. But if the girl's disgraced us, 'tis your own fault, the fault of your evil mind! You drove them to elope, old jealous fool!"
The Burgrave clenched his hands and shook them above his head, fell into a chair and wept. Elope? If she but knew! Alack, poor Sidonia!
"I trust you will come to soberness presently," said Betty, with a disgusted look at the row of empty bottles. And at that moment it was that shouts from the courtyard proclaimed the return of the lost ones.
When the Burgrave heard that his niece was safe, his ecstasy of relief was only measured by the previous misery. He could have leaped and sung. He caught his wife to his breast with fresh tears; but, here repulsed with scorn, tottered forth to the great hall, still reeling in his joy.
The girl met him, severe as a young Daniel, with pointed finger, flashing eye.
"You weep now, uncle; you laughed last night! Was that your farewell?"
The Burgrave stepped back, dismayed afresh; she knew, then, that no mere accident had betrayed them. The wretched Lord of the Castle flung an appealing look around; met the eyes of Steven, scornful—he knew; met the fiddler's eyes, horribly mocking—he knew; met his Betty's gaze, deeply suspicious. In a moment she, too, would know!
Out rang Sidonia's pitiless clarion tongue. And then the Burgravine also knew.
Promptly he was delivered into her hands. She threatened him with King and Emperor, with family and justice, prison, madhouse, duel. The Emperor had put divorce in fashion, she reminded her lord. She would divorce him resoundingly. The last prospect was—since, after all, he loved her in his own fashion—the shaft that hit him hardest.
Natheless, in the affairs of her heart she was a woman of business, and she had a prophetic vision of a return to gay Cassel with a tamed Bluebeard.
"Mademoiselle Sidonia, I am going. Am I to go away alone?" asked Steven. "I have told your uncle how poor a guardian I consider him to you, and he has consented that you should have another. Will you trust me to take care of you?"
She looked up at him, questioning.
"I should call you my wife," said he in a low voice, all astonished himself that his heart should beat so fast.
She drooped her head. He could see the scarlet dye her cheek. "Sidonia!" he said. Then she looked up at him once more.
"I will go with you," she replied.
Her child eyes were upon him and seemed to ask for something still; and at this he bent and kissed her mouth—as he would have kissed a child—and did not guess that, at the touch of his lips, Sidonia's woman-soul was born.